Stylistic Correctness

When it comes to writing, style is political.

One of the challenges about the theme of the upcoming conference in Bristol in July is the question of what is political about ‘creative history’? I’ve heard more than one person wonder out loud whether a turn to creativity is politically empty, whether trying to do more imaginative things with history is a way of saying we have given up on changing the world.

So what’s political about creativity?

Everything, from the question of who ‘gets’ to be (considered) creative, to how that creativity is expressed. My interest in the ‘creativity’ of history is largely to do with writing, so let me offer just one example: style.

If you believe that there is a style that is ‘correct’ that – I think – reveals more about your worldview than it does about writing.

If misplaced commas are an assault on your way of being, perhaps you need to think about your relationship to punctuation. If you feel the need to police these errors, well perhaps it’s unsurprising – if lacking in a sense of historical perspective – that slang compares you to the German fascists.

And yet.

I think there are rules of thumb that can be offered not from the position of stylistic absolutists, but as champions of the accessibility of meaning:

Write simple.

A political commitment to broadening access to/active participation in education involves a commitment to use the language most accessible to the greatest number of people. It’s bloody hard to write that simply, but I think it means choosing words that are familiar to more people.

Prefer ‘use’ to ‘utilise’, ‘but’ to ‘however’. Banish your ‘henceforths’, ‘wherewithals’, and ‘albeits’. Without wanting to sound too ‘kipper, prefer the Anglo-Saxon root to the latinate or Greek. ‘Forecast’ rather than ‘prognosticate’, ‘eat’ rather than ‘consume’, ‘dally’ rather than ‘prevaricate’.

‘Write simple’, like much writing advice, is often misunderstood.

It does not have to mean write in short, declarative sentences. You’re a writer, not a sausage machine. Clarity and simplicity as often come from ordering as they do from length. If you put your subject and verb first, you can get away with Amazonian sentences.

Parenthesize – as I too often do – and all may be lost. You’re a writer, not a landscape gardener.

There is no way to give advice like this that does not sound imperious bossy. And every writer has their own good reason for needing their impenetrable muddy terminology jargon, their tortuous, labyrinthine muddled sentences. The creativity, I would say, is in writing something that has the smarts, the intellectual scaffolding, but could be understood by the widest range of English readers.

Creativity, I would say, is not a turn away from those kinds of political commitments, it’s the only possible solution to them.


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